In a press conference on 30 November during his flight home from Africa, Pope Francis responded to a question from a French journalist about fundamentalism.

Philippine De Saint-Pierre asked the Pope,

Today more than ever, we know that fundamentalism threatens the entire planet. We also saw this in Paris. Before this danger, do you think that religious leaders should intervene more in the political field?

In response Pope Francis called fundamentalism

a sickness that exists in all religions. We Catholics have some, not just some, so many, who believe they have the absolute truth and they move forward with calumnies, with defamation and they hurt (people), they hurt. And, I say this because it’s my Church, also us, all of us. It must be combatted. Religious fundamentalism isn’t religious. Why? Because God is lacking. It’s idolatrous, as money is idolatrous.

This off-the-cuff response to a specific question is notable for at least six things:

  1. Sickness – fundamentalism is a “sickness”. When religion prevents people from coming closer to fulfilling the beauty and love for which we were all created, it is sick. Like all sickness, at its worst, fundamentalism destroys life.
  1. It exists “in all religions.” There is no one fundamentalist religion. There are narrow, doctrinaire, legalistic, violent, anti-life forces present in all religious communities. Whenever a group of people becomes so narrow and exclusive that they are unwilling to see the truth and beauty in belief systems other than their own, they are heading towards the violence to which fundamentalism inevitably leads. We need to be honest about the fundamentalist tendencies in our own community and perhaps even at times in our own hearts.
  1. Fundamentalists believe that they and they alone “have the absolute truth.” If I believe that only I and those who agree with me possess the “absolute truth,” it will not be long before I stop listening to you and begin to diminish you as a person, demanding that you adopt my version of “the absolute truth”.
  1. This is why fundamentalism leads to “calumniesdefamation and hurt.” A “calumny” is a “false and defamatory statement.” Because the fundamentalist has stopped listening, it is impossible for the fundamentalist to speak truth about the person to whom they refuse to pay attention. When we fail to listen and are unwilling to discern the truth present in another person’s life, we cause “hurt.” “Hurt” is never the aim of any authentic religious system. Hence the Pope’s most radical and challenging point about fundamentalism:
  1. Fundamentalism, Pope Francis suggests, “isn’t religious.” The etymology of the word “religious” derives from the Latin “religare,” “to bind.” The function of religion is to reconnect, to restore the wholeness of creation, to unite people rather than divide. Fundamentalism “isn’t religious” because at its core it contradicts the essential function of the religious enterprise. Fundamentalism divides and separates. It views the human community in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.” It majors in identifying who is “in” and who is “out.”The Apostle Paul argues that the purpose of religion is to enable us to see that God has entrusted to us “the ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18). Religion exists to create healing, restoration, and the renewal of life and human community. Christianity aims to create agents of “reconciliation.” Wherever religion is used to divide, separate and create distinction, it has departed from the true purpose religion exists to serve.
  2. Fundamentalism does not ultimately qualify as religious because the Pope says, in fundamentalism “God is lacking.” Fundamentalism believes in its system more than it trusts in God. Having confined “God” to its particular little dogmatic box, fundamentalism has lost touch with the essential openness, expansiveness, and spirit of reconciling love that are characteristic of the Christian vision of God who is known as mercy and love.

God is bigger and more mysterious than any human formulation. Thus all human constructs that attempt to point towards or articulate the nature of God must be held with humility and caution, ie. with “faith.” This does not mean our beliefs cannot be held with passion and conviction. But, those who hold their convictions with faith, will never seek to impose them on others or demand that everyone must agree with their particular way of articulating the deep mysteries of life. Those who seek to follow the religious way will always seek commonality and shared conviction, no matter what differences may appear on the surface.

True religion seeks to do no harm. It aims at healing, reconciliation and finding deep connection within all forms of life. The religious enterprise at its best seeks to enable all life forms to prosper and fulfill the deepest purpose for which they have been brought into being.